It might be easy to dismiss the music as boring on first listen, but there's something to be said about limiting one's tools when crafting songs. It's much easier to make things interesting when you have an endless supply of sound-making devices, whether that's a big band ensemble or lots of studio equipment. So, much like a painter with only three or four colors on his or her palette, the Winter Blanket chooses to keep music-making simple and to-the-point.
That's a lot more complicated than it seems, and that's also what makes the band's work so interesting. It's desolate but elegant, subtle but honest, and a great amount of weight is carried by every lyric, every guitar chord, every piano or bass note, and every cymbal accent that appears in the songs. Themes of sorrow, yearning, and conviction are explored with earnestness so apparent that it's impossible to accuse the writers of insincerity, even if the work's not autobiographical. And you just don't know, after one listen or 10, whether it is.
Following a tour earlier this year, the group began work on its latest effort, Prescription Perils. Slated for release in the spring, Prescription Perils will be the Winter Blanket's third full-length. (The band released "Songs for Ghosts," a seven-inch-single tribute to '60s folk-rocker Fred Neil, in late 2002, featuring the original song "The Ghost of Fred Neil" and two covers of Neil songs.) In anticipation of the band's show this weekend at the Quad Cities Brew & View, I was able to preview the work in its early stages, which currently consists of new studio cuts and initial eight-track demos.
As usual, primary songwriters Doug Miller and Stephanie Davila share lead vocal duties on Perils. With Miller's voice often a monochromatic baritone and Davila's a whisper-like study in detail, the Winter Blanket delve further into introspection on this effort. They write forums for confession. Confessions of raw emotion, confessions of self, the confession that "I ain't got nothin' else to say. I don't know why I act this way." In situations when the lyrical content might be particularly revealing (which are many), Miller's deep droning tones serve the cause much better as backing vocal - another instrument if you will. On the songs on which Miller takes the lead spot, I'd like to hear him belt out some of these lyrics.
The most notable development on this album is Davila's front-and-center presence. On previous works, including the group's 2000 debut Hopeless Lullaby, her vocal treatments usually consisted of backing harmonies to Miller's lead melodies, with one or two songs featuring her in the spotlight. So far on Perils, Davila takes the lead on a lot of the tracks, which is absolutely refreshing, and I'll bet it will be a key factor in the Winter Blanket's future success if the band chooses to stick with its current formula.
I'd like to hear her let go as well, but when you turn up your stereo a little bit, you realize that she's maintaining a tremendous melodic presence even though you have to strain to hear this music at lower levels, which is very impressive. The Winter Blanket is not eccentric enough to pull off the robotic mechanism of art rock like that of Blonde Redhead or even Sonic Youth, and even though I'd like to hear them lean in that direction a little more, I don't think they want to at this juncture, and that's by no means a bad thing.
Miller and Davila recorded the demos in their Minneapolis apartment for the purpose of courting labels, which has, according to Davila, gone exceedingly well. Not only are they currently in negotiations with an independent label (which they won't name at this point), but noted Minneapolis producer/engineer Tom Herber - known for his work with The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Low, and he's also mixed some of the Winter Blanket's previous material - offered to record the entire album on "spec" - essentially free until they get a deal up and running with a new label. He is now working with the band on Prescription Perils.
The amazing thing is that prior to Herber's offer, Miller and Davila had offers to release the eight-track material as-is, and a large portion of the work includes only half-complete recordings. (Bassist Kim Murray and drummer Paul Blomquist still reside in the Quad Cities and travel to Minneapolis to record.)
In an e-mail interview, Doug Miller (DM) and Stephanie Davila (SD) talked more about the Winter Blanket's in-progress work. Here's what they had to say.
I've been checking out your new material quite a bit. You'd mentioned adding other instrumentation, but with the feedback you've received, have you re-thought that at all?
DM: Yes, the feedback has been a point of consideration, although we did intend to leave several of the songs plain and simple. Instrumentation that has yet to be added is rather incidental on some songs, and there are a few that will experience quite a makeover when Paul and Kim are finished with them.
Is all the material you sent me going into the album? There are three covers, including Fred Neil's "Little Bit of Rain" from "Music for Ghosts." Are those staying on the album? Is this the first album that will feature covers if so?
DM: "Little Bit of Rain" will not be on the album, although "The Ghost of Fred Neil" might. ... I think the only cover on this record will be "Darkness on the Edge of Town," a Bruce Springsteen song that is very different from the original. I think it will fit in stylistically and lyrically; that's why we are using it.
Stephanie, there's definitely more of your voice on this album. Have you taken over more writing duties? If so, what led to that?
SD: Yes, I have taken on a greater role as a songwriter in the band. I am writing more songs, and I think that the band as a whole is getting better at writing parts for songs that aren't rock in their structure. I am not a verse-chorus-verse songwriter. For me things aren't that cut and dried. ... Now, Doug might play harmonica on a song. Or Paul might play bells. We are getting better at seeing things beyond guitar, drums, and bass. I think time plays the biggest role in that.
This album has a lot of acoustic guitar on it; at this point it's definitely in more of a folk vein. Is that deliberate, or is that due to lack of production at this point? Is there anything that you've been listening to that's influenced that?
DM: It will stay very acoustic for the most part. We write all of our songs with acoustic guitars. On Actors & Actresses, we included a couple songs that were just acoustic/vocal pieces; we wanted to do more of that with this record. Paul and Kim have pretty tough work schedules, and we occasionally play without them, so it is important for us to release some songs we can play as a two-piece. The two biggest influences on this record were the tour we did with Richard Buckner and the fact that we really got into Springsteen's Nebraska album. Especially with Buckner, we learned so much from watching him play every night for over two weeks. Just watching him play guitar, the way he muscled it and controlled it really opened my eyes to just how timid and careful I have been as a guitarist. I think that will show when people see us live.
SD: For me, I have always wanted to make the music we are making now; I just didn't know how. ... Sure people like Townes Van Zandt, Richard Buckner, and Gillian Welch have been an influence. But I never listen to them and say, "I want to sound like this!"
At what stage of production are you? Is a finished product around the corner, or do you have a ways to go?
DM: We have studio time booked for early January here in Minneapolis. Half of the record is finished with songs we recorded at home. The more complex songs will be done in a studio.
You mentioned working with Tom Herber as producer on this project. How is it different having him at the helm rather than just coming in at the end stages? How is he different from Alan Sparhawk of Low? What's the studio atmosphere like?
DM: Tom has a good sense of where we are coming from with this record. He has done a lot of work with The Jayhawks and he is a great fan of Townes Van Zandt, Dylan, Neil Young, etc. - a lot of the influences on this record. It is different somewhat, but I think the January sessions will be our deepest involvement with him yet.
SD: The greatest difference is our resources. We have access to dozens of vintage microphones and cool amps. In the past, we were limited in that way. Now we have rooms full of pianos, amps, numerous drums, etc. And we aren't limited on time. With the other records we had exactly a week to record everything. We lived in the QCA, took time from work, and drove 10 hours to Duluth to record. We had to finish before we left. Now, we don't have to settle on anything. If we listen to something and don't like the snare sound, we can re-do it.
DM: Alan was a great help, but he tended to be very distracted; after all, he has a baby daughter and he pretty much single-handedly manages the affairs of a very popular band. Working with him was inspiring and Duluth is inspiring, but sometimes I think he didn't know what to do with us and we didn't know what to do with ourselves. ... Tom tends to be reserved at first, but when things get rolling he livens up. He's not afraid to debate with us, and I like that.
So you're in negotiations with a yet-to-be-named indie label. What's that experience like for you? Is it like you thought it would be?
DM: There is a big indie label that wants to do the record, and we hope they will commit to it soon. We sent about 20 demo discs to labels we really like, and some were certainly a long shot; we were surprised to hear back from as many as we did. We are still sending stuff to Alan with each new session we do. I don't think we will do the next record with him, but he has asked us to consider him [to release the album].
SD: It is nice to have options ... seeing what different labels have to offer and what they are willing to do to make your record work. It is very important to have a label that is willing to work hard after it is released. The band has to tour and work hard, but if the label isn't advertising and doing the business end of thing, it is hard to have a successful record.
You've obviously been compared to Low. Do you feel like you're breaking that label? In what ways?
DM: We are definitely breaking away from that. Although Low has been an inspiration, I don't think we ever sounded like them. In fact, whenever I hear about a band supposedly sounding like Low or Red House Painters etc., nine out of 10 times it is absolutely horrible. Sometimes I felt people resented us for being on Al's label; sometimes I think people were jealous, like, "Why are they on Alan's label? I'm better than that." In the beginning it helped to mention them to get our foot in the door; now we have a pretty easy time booking tours, getting radio play, etc. without bringing them up.
Where do you see Winter Blanket's place in the Minneapolis scene?
DM: A certain arts/music paper has really latched onto us this year, so that was nice. Both our full lengths were top five on radio here before we ever moved to Minneapolis; part of the reason we decided to move here was because we already had connections, so it hasn't been that hard.
SD: People are just starting to understand that we live in Minneapolis now. It takes about a year for people to realize that you are part of their community. I am excited to see the support our next record gets here. We were well-received before, but now that we are local, I am hoping that we get even more support.
How was it touring with Richard Buckner? How did you get that gig?
DM: We saw him in St. Paul and talked with him a bit. A year later we played with him in Iowa City and he really liked us and was also interested in expanding out of his alt-country pigeonhole, so he thought it would be cool to take us out with him. It was incredible. It will stand as one of the most-fun times in my life. We had great guarantees everywhere and we were always given food and oftentimes hotel rooms as well; we wouldn't have had that treatment without him. The best part was watching him play each night. He was mesmerizing.
SD: More than anything, he helped my live performance. He gives himself to the crowd each night. He has so much conviction; he re-lives each song, every night. He taught me how to lend myself to that and not let nerves stand in the way.
What are your thoughts about the QC market after working in a larger metropolitan area?
DM: Minneapolis has been ranked second to NYC only for arts and entertainment life; there are so many places to play here - more than Chicago, I kid you not. The college radio station here is considered one of the best in the country. People here actually listen to it. QC lacks these things. There have always been great bands from the QC, but never abundant audiences. I don't know what else any of the bands are supposed to do. There have been many labels, venues, bands, etc. One thing that has mystified me is that no one has ever found a way to connect with the college kids there. ...
Where do you see the Winter Blanket in a year? Do you expect to make the transition to full-time musicians?
DM: That would be nice but it takes a lot for that to happen.
SD: I hope to develop more recognition with the next record. I would like to be able to go to any big town and be able to draw a 200- to 300-person crowd. But I don't sit around and dream about "making it big" and signing to a major. I don't put expectations on the music I make because then it stops being fun. I will write music until the day I die, regardless of if it is a full-time deal or not.
In your mind, what would be the ultimate happy ending for the Winter Blanket?
DM: When I was young I thought if I just played Gabe's in Iowa City I would be making it, 'cause I used to go up there and see Tripmaster Monkey all the time. Ever since then it has been a never-ending one-up. ... I was at a point where I just wanted to do a big tour with good audiences. ... I guess I'm really satisfied. We have some fans who have been sincerely affected by our music, and I think that was enough.
SD: Happy ending? I just want to continue making music that we are excited to share. I would be happy having a flexible job and touring when the time is right. I like having a place to call home; I like having a cat and a bed to come home to. I like having some structure to my day; so being a rock star and touring all the time was never a goal for me. It would be nice to be able to be in-control to say, "I feel like going to Europe in a few months, let's book a tour."
The Winter Blanket will be performing its third annual Christmas show at the Quad Cities Brew & View on Saturday, December, 20, at 9:30 p.m. Chrash will also perform. Tickets are $5 in advance at Co-op stores and the Brew & View, or $6 at the door.